Parsee General Hospital – A Short Story
“Chaal ni, chaal ni”, (c’mon, c’mon) urged Freny, in her usual boisterous manner, waving at her sister Dhun, who responded as fast as her stumpy legs permitted, the added weight of the tiffin carrier she bore making her pant. The plastic slippers she had recently purchased from Grant Road market weren’t a help in any way, slowing down her pace even more, but the Bombay monsoon wasn’t worth wasting a decent pair of slippers on. Besides, her feet were hardly the kind that would grace a delicate pair of sandals! Freny was clearly visible in her bright floral dress, despite the crowd of family surrounding her. She always had to be the centre of every conversation, regardless of its subject matter and was therefore difficult to ignore. On her right, standing tall and slim, was their third and youngest sister, Gool, who few would have believed to have been born of the same parents. Dignified, attractive, and soft spoken, she would often be embarrassed by her sisters’ loud voices and laughter. Seated on the bench were two cousins and an ageing uncle accompanied by his deaf wife, which made Freny’s volume go up two notches.
Jehangirji Saklatwala rolled his eyes and shook his head at the bantering of his family, and, despite the catheter and IV drip connected to his frail arm, smiled wryly under his oxygen mask. Gool was definitely his favourite daughter, but even his failing memory could not dissipate the fun times with Freny and Dhun during their childhood years.
He was grateful for the wide corridors of the Parsi General Hospital that allowed for large gatherings of family and friends to keep his spirits buoyant. The aches and pains of old age were slowly overriding all else in his life. After the sudden passing away of his beloved wife, life seemed to drag on listlessly. When he fainted one morning on his way to the washroom, Dhun, with whom he had been staying after his wife’s death, arranged for a complete health check up at the Parsi General Hospital. This unearthed a gamut of ailments, and he often felt that his last days were not so distant anymore.
Most nights, as he lay in bed , sleep eluding him for most of the darkened hours, he would marvel at the magnificent building that had housed the ill, the frail and the dying since 1912, thanks to the generosity of Seth Bomanji Dinshaw Petit after whom the hospital was named. A devout Parsi would not hear of being admitted to any hospital other than this one, because where else could family and friends saunter in at any time of the day or night to visit the patients, or be permitted to bring in cutlets, patties and rotlis fresh off the tava for their loved ones as well as their bed neighbours. Where else would you find Mumbai’s finest Parsi doctors generously giving of their time and medical expertise to the poor and moneyed in equal measure. The well-manicured and lovingly tended garden, where his sons-in-law, Rumi, Soli and Fram, bonded over their walk, was a sight for sore eyes. Jehangirji was glad that his ward was located on the first floor, because it allowed him an unrestricted view of the pretty landscape below, when the nurses wheeled him out every morning while they did up his bed.
Jehangirji found the hours between 3 am and 5 am the most difficult to pass. Apart from the monotonous hum of the various machines hooked onto some of his ward mates, there was little activity, if any. In the week that bed number 4 in the men’s ward of the Nursing Home section had been his, only one night had had any form of excitement, if a cardiac arrest could be considered as such. The early hours of the morning were lost in rituals of ablutions and bed pans and nursing shift changes; but come 10 am, the corridors and hallways hummed with activity. The ward would be filled with visitors and time would fly by in a whirlwind of gossip and chit chat.
Jehangirji knew that Behram in bed number 3 had a “saala dikro” (useless son) who lived in the US of A and never had time to visit; but Dolly, the daughter, spent most of her day by her father’s bedside, admonishing and cajoling all in one breath; that Kekobad, who lay sprawled on bed no 2 because he was just too large to move, was married to Aloo who, he claimed, made the best malido (semolina sweet). Judging by his size, Jehangirji, believed him! Fardoon Fatakia in bed no 7, across from Jehangirji, snored so loud, the others would curse him in the choicest Parsi phrases all through the night, not that it made any difference to Fardoon, who prided himself on his ability to sleep through an earthquake. Jehangirji’s own bedside would be crowded with some cousin, friend or daughter all through the day. Discussions were often held on who would relieve whom for duty during the day. Jehangirji himself had forbidden any one to stay during the night, otherwise Freny would definitely have organised for some relative to do that in her usual bossy manner.
Evening hours were definitely the most entertaining. All the corridors of the hospital would be overflowing with visitors, many of whom knew the layout of the hospital like the back of their hand, considering they were always visiting some relative or friend there. It was socialising at its best. Recipes of yesterday’s delicious snacks were exchanged along with discussions on who wore which “gara” at last evening’s Navjote. Even in the more somber waiting room outside the ICU, the Parsis bonded over cups of “phudna ni chai” (mint tea) while debating which sofa afforded the most comfort during the nights.
On his earlier trips to the hospital to visit relatives and friends, Jehangirji had marvelled at the expanse of land on which the hospital stood. Being conveniently located in the heart of the city of Bombay, it still had vacant areas for future development, despite the already existing large stone L-shaped building and the additional structures housing the residential quarters for doctors and nurses. His heart would swell with pride at being a member of this illustrious community that held philanthropy high in its religious tenets.
Gool’s gentle voice saying “pappa” brought him back to the realisation that dusk had already lit the sky a pretty orange, signaling that most of the crowd outside would be organising themselves to get home. He could already hear Dhun arranging lifts for her aunt and uncle with Dolly, the bed neighbour’s daughter. Now there would be a long session of goodbyes and “kaale malsu” (we’ll meet tomorrow) all over the ward.
As the chitter chatter died down and the echo of the last visitor’s footsteps faded away in the corridors, Jehangirji closed his eyes and his thoughts drifted as always to this institution that had become his home in the last few days. He had heard that several new state-of-the-art hospitals had opened across Bombay. The Parsi community seemed to be dwindling. Would the Parsi General Hospital be able to survive these changes, or would the wheels of a rapidly advancing technology crush the older, less sophisticated system? With snarling traffic on every road in his beloved Bombay, how many would brave the honking and the chaos to come visit friends and family admitted here ? Would the hallways fall silent, rooms darken, and lifts creak to a halt some day? As he welcomed the drowsiness that overtook his thoughts, he murmured, “Jeevto rehje” (stay alive) before drifting into peaceful slumber.